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‘It’s not ideal’: Carroll County students, teachers begin distance learning during coronavirus closure

Carroll County Public Schools’ nearly 25,000 students got started on distance learning this week, facing a semester that will take place mostly via computer screen due to the coronavirus. The Maryland State Department of Education closed schools to in-person learning after March 13 and facilities will remain closed through at least April 24.

But online learning commenced March 30 and, for at least one teacher, it was like nothing had changed. With one exception.

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“Everyone’s in their pajamas,” said Brendan Gallagher, a Career and Technology Center teacher.

The state’s school systems continue working on continuity of learning plans for their students. CCPS surveyed families last week through email and phone to determine what resources families had for internet connectivity and devices to connect to the internet. For some that will be achieved through lending CCPS laptops to families, with priority based on need. Families should contact their students’ principal.

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The schools system did not have an exact number Monday of how many laptops would be distributed, but would have an update later in the week, Director of Curriculum and Instruction Angela McCauslin said.

On Tuesday, the school system informed families that the number of requests for laptops was greater than the number of laptops available and the distribution would be limited to one per family.

In a message about internet connectivity, CCPS provided information about low-cost of free mobile hotspot offers or Wi-Fi services. In Westminster, Ting is offering free drive-up Wi-Fi in the Westminster farmers market parking lot and school and library Wi-Fi can often be accessed from outside those buildings even while they are closed. Areas at each school where Wi-Fi is available can be found on each school’s website under “CCPS Wi-Fi Access on School Grounds.”

CCPS will also provide students with paper workbooks by mail for independent learning. Students without internet access will also be contacted by their teachers via phone.

“We understand the challenges some may face with the limited accessibility issue Carroll County residents may experience, and we continue to identify ways we can support student access,” CCPS wrote in the message.

‘This process will take time’

For students who do have internet access, most teachers are using Google Classroom to upload assignments and contact students. The system had 11,684 Google Classrooms created systemwide as of Monday.

Teachers have also been using tools like OneNote Class Notebooks, AP Classroom and others that students are familiar with from instruction. Email, phone calls, and chats within Google Classroom or Microsoft Teams are all options for getting in contact with teachers.

To answer student questions, teachers have put in place a two-hour “office hours” period daily for answering email, phone calls and other forms of communications. “Hours have been created based on school level,” Angie McCauslin said.

CCPS posted a list of frequently asked questions about the Continuity of Learning Plan, at carrollk12.org. “We understand that this process will take time and there will be some bumps along the way. We have developed this Frequently Asked Questions document as a resource for members of our school system community. We encourage you to return to the document often, as we will continue to update it as we move forward,” the school system wrote.

Questions remain, like what grading and credit will look like, especially for seniors approaching graduation. CCPS, like all school systems, is waiting for guidance from the Maryland State Department of Education. But they made clear that all work completed while schools are closed will be counted toward graduation requirements.

The state board is the authority that can determine whether any of the required 180 days of school can be waived. “We are optimistic that the state will waive the first two-week closure period,” CCPS wrote in the FAQ document.

CCPS said special education student services will be delivered as part of distance learning, but that “Most special education services during distance learning will not be same as what is currently identified in IEPs as these learning opportunities are different than the instruction students received while schools were open.” Special education teachers and providers will be in touch with families about plans for support.

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The message was similar for English as a second language (ESOL) students, for whom services will continue, though different than they were in face-to-face. “ESOL staff will continue to collaborate with content teachers to ensure access to the learning opportunities provided through distance learning in CCPS.”

‘It’s not ideal’

Daryl Robbins is principal at Robert Moton Elementary School, one of Carroll County’s Title I schools. These schools receive federal assistance through a federal program to support education of a higher percentage of students. He said their focus has been trying to connect with their parent community, especially those who need more technology resources.

A lot of that is taking place “the old-fashioned way,” via telephone to make sure families have not only what they need for education, but for the “human things” like delivering meals to those who cannot get to school meal pickup sites.

If they can get more students access to the Google Classroom program, that will be a huge bonus, he said. Looking for positives, the situation, he said that the school will come out the other side with a better understanding of distance learning tools and how to better connect.

He said he is proud of the Robert Moton staff, who are “working pretty much nonstop," to pivot to a new system.

One important thing is making sure parents know who to call. Calls are being sent to a central office mailbox while the school is closed, but staff are calling back. “There’s a lag in getting to families but we’re getting to them,” he said.

“We try make sure nobody falls through the cracks,” he said.

CCPS Food Services will continue to provide three meals Monday through Friday for those 18 and under who come to one of seven designated sites throughout the county.

For Stacy Nolan, chemistry teacher at Liberty high School, part of the move to distance learning has been figuring out how to bring labs to her students. The plan is not to do take-home labs — too much liability and potential to cause damage — but, for now, she and her colleagues are finding many online resources for video labs and interactive activities. In fact, there are so many online resources becoming available that it can take time to weed through them all, she said.

One of her fellow teachers will be doing a video version of one lab, and students will complete the classwork with the data he collects. "It’s not ideal, and we’d love them to be learning those hands-on skills,” she said.

Her colleagues are working together closely and sharing resources, keeping in contact almost “all day, every day,” she said. For example, she had trouble with her scanner one morning and a colleague stepped in within five minutes.

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In the middle of this first week, she’ll be doing a video conference to check in with her class. It’s not mandatory, because she knows not all students will have computer access at the same part of the day. While teachers have been working to provide continuity of education, they don’t want to lose touch with of the mental health aspects of checking in.

‘Engaged and asking questions’

Gallagher, who teaches in the biomedical science program at the Tech Center, has been keeping in touch with his students and tracking the spread of the coronavirus because it shows the real-life implications of their program.

As they resumed class via distance learning, the classes have been making use of video conferencing for lecture as well as questions and classwork. The videos are archived in case students can’t be present for the live conference.

Gallagher has been happy to find that his students are “all engaged and asking questions. We picked up where we left off two weeks ago except everyone’s in their pajamas."

All subject areas are continuing instruction in some form of distance learning.

For Brandi Jason’s instrumental music students, this means working with “an abundance of optimism” to prepare them for the concerts scheduled in May. She has been collecting videos of ensembles performing the pieces they are working on and using her own piano to break down difficult sections of the material.

Going forward, she wants students to learn to record or film for themselves and turn in a performance. Some students have been so eager that they’ve turned in a musical performance less than 24 hours after classes resumed. During this week, the school has planned a pick-up day for students to get instruments from the school while maintaining social distance. For some percussion students with instruments too unwieldy to take home, they’ve had to find ways to improvise.

If they do get word from the school system that concerts are canceled, they might switch to learning material from popular media like “Harry Potter” or Nintendo games. “Things that will keep them engaged and happy,” Jason said.

While teachers have been prepping to do distance learning, the music community in Carroll County has been coming together to share resources and “lift one another up,” she said.

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